Thursday, September 15, 2011

Congress wants to make lying on the Internet a federal crime

| »
Criminalization of Internet lies: Computer screen reading “Trust me. I’m from the INTERNET” behind yellow police “CRIME SCENE” ribbon

And the march to criminalize anything that the government doesn’t like goes on as Congress is considering the Obama administration’s wishes to put a draconian stop to anyone who’s ever less than perfectly honest on the Internet:

Imagine that President Obama could order the arrest of anyone who broke a promise on the Internet. So you could be jailed for lying about your age or weight on an Internet dating site. Or you could be sent to federal prison if your boss told you to work but you used the company's computer to check sports scores online. Imagine that Eric Holder's Justice Department urged Congress to raise penalties for violations, making them felonies allowing three years in jail for each broken promise. Fanciful, right?

Think again. Congress is now poised to grant the Obama administration's wishes in the name of "cybersecurity."

The little-known law at issue is called the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. It was enacted in 1986 to punish computer hacking. But Congress has broadened the law every few years, and today it extends far beyond hacking. The law now criminalizes computer use that "exceeds authorized access" to any computer. Today that violation is a misdemeanor, but the Senate Judiciary Committee is set to meet this morning to vote on making it a felony.

The natural and utterly predictable result is an over-broad and confusingly vague law that the courts are struggling to figure out, much less apply evenly. And the effects are beginning to show as more and more people are being prosecuted over trivial nonsense:

In 2009, the Justice Department prosecuted a woman for violating the "terms of service" of the social networking site The woman had been part of a group that set up a MySpace profile using a fake picture. The feds charged her with conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Prosecutors say the woman exceeded authorized access because MySpace required all profile information to be truthful. But people routinely misstate the truth in online profiles, about everything from their age to their name. What happens when each instance is a felony?

In 2010, the Justice Department charged a defendant with unauthorized access for using a computer to buy tickets from Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster's website lets anyone visit. But its "terms of use" only permitted non-automated purchases, and the defendant used a computer script to make the purchases.

In another case, Justice has charged a defendant with violating workplace policies that limited use to legitimate company business. Prosecutors claimed that using the company's computers for other reasons exceeded authorized access. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently agreed.

The law even goes beyond criminal law. It allows civil suits filed by private parties. As a result, federal courts have been flooded with silly disputes. In one recent case, an employer sued a former employee for excessive Internet usage from work. The alleged offense: visiting Facebook and sending personal emails. In another case, a company posted "terms of use" on its website declaring that no competitors could visit—and then promptly sued a competitor that did.

Remarkably, the law doesn't even require devices to be connected to the Internet. Since 2008, it applies to pretty much everything with a microchip. So if you're visiting a friend and you use his coffeemaker without permission, watch out: You may have committed a federal crime.

Hmmmm, illegal coffee … (Oh, wait, I hate coffee. Right.)

Seriously, though, it does make one wonder how the courts plan to criminalize, and subsequently prosecute for, something that nearly every single human being in existence is guilty of. Ever clicked that you were “18” even when you were only a young’un of 17? Ever enhanced your profile photo, or claimed your resumé includes being a bodyguard for the Dalai Lama? Hell, ever used your weight from 20 years ago to claim that you really did age well and that your beer barrel-of-a-gut is really just an illusion? Then you’re obviously a crook and need to go to jail, you terrible person.

The fact is that lying is not a crime, and nor should it be. Not that rank dishonesty is by any means a positive trait, but there are countless scenarios where a certain amount of dissimulation and deceit may be useful, or even necessary, such as with the usage of online pseudonyms to evade censorship. If the Obama administration and Congress really want to eradicate all dishonesty on the Internet, then the only possible extension of this logic is that any and all lying should be banned everywhere. There really isn’t anything more than choice of communication medium standing between that and what the government is currently seeking to enforce. Never even mind the glaringly obvious First Amendment issues this brings up; it doesn’t even pass under any standards of fundamental common sense.

One wonders what any of this has to do with “cybersecurity”. It’s almost as if it were just another unconstitutional power-grab behind the thinning veil of national security.

(via @radleybalko)